Updated: Oct 25
Jaunty Irish-spring green banners line the main street of my small rural town.
The work, no doubt, of pious, well-meaning women with full hearts, divine inspiration, and kind intentions who carefully selected uplifting phrases to share with passersby. “Laugh It Off.” “Just Smile.” ”Choose Joy.”
I watch a budding young girl walking home from school pass under those banners, alone, her head down, books held tight to her chest. I wonder for a moment which method of suicide she is pondering —pills, a gun, a rope? It may seem a morbid curiosity, but chances are I’m right. Forty-two percent of students in our county seriously considered suicide in the past year, almost 34% made plans, and 30% attempted suicide at least once (Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, Pennsylvania Department of Drugs and Alcohol Programs, Pennsylvania Department of Education , 2021 ).
I also wonder if the toxic joy of the banners she walks under nauseate her the way they nauseate me.
Recently I attended a women’s business conference, the first since the pandemic, seeking the kind of hugs and ugly cries and tribal validation that come with sacred sisterhood. The speakers were professional women whom I admire. But as each speaker’s messaging was revealed —be your own cheerleader, block time, know your personality type —I felt this alienating distance. Their words warbled, like I was hearing them underwater. While drowning. Right in front of them.
No one mentioned the massive mental health crises or addiction or kids without parents or parents without kids.
For a moment I felt that I must be the only one. Perhaps it’s just me that no longer belongs here in this obsolete normalcy. But I know too much, and I know too many. I know the 27-year-old who took his life after begging for help at a veteran’s hospital. I know the 23-year-old whose unchecked addiction is so terrifying to those around him, his family and even his church sought protection orders. I know the 22-year-old who overdosed in January, following in his father’s footsteps just a few years before. I know the 19-year-old who doesn’t know how to fill out his college FASFA because his drug-addicted mother is now dead and didn’t bother to file taxes. I know the woman who still wakes up screaming after being hunted and attacked by her once-beloved husband, psychotic from drugs. I don’t know of these things—I know them intimately; they or their families are all within my circle.
Has this sacred sisterhood gone untouched, a club to which I no longer belong? Are we ignoring our shared experiences? Do we not talk about it in polite circles? Do we even have the language to talk about it?
Across town, a trendy podcaster with a slick personal brand preaches the commandments of success—this generation’s evangelist. Headsets and a practiced coolness to dropping a cheap f bomb replace the sweated frenzy of the holy spirit, blurred backgrounds the new tent revival smoke and mirrors. Focus and goals and mindset and scaling are the new gospel.
Things that worked well—in 2019.
Before we had a species-wide near-death experience that triggered rampant mental illness, loss, and addiction. I am far less worried now about growing my business than about adjusting my work to accommodate where I, and my coworkers and my family, are in the grief cycle. I need sanity more than scale now.
A brain suffering from acute trauma can’t just change their mindset.
You can’t focus addiction away—not for yourself, not for someone else.
Setting goals alone won’t help the fastest growing homeless population in our rural county: unaccompanied children and young adults.
It’s the new dimension of diversity—those who are immersed in the life-altering, exhausting tornado of this “second pandemic” and those who are not. There is a startling disconnect between the two, akin to the country club president sitting on the board of the food bank asking, “Why don’t they just get a job?”
The disconnect is more than tone deaf; it is hurtful, alienating. Well-meaning people offering rational advice for irrational circumstances, like telling someone to walk a straight line through a rushing river.
There is just too much to explain about why the signs and speeches and business advice feel so tone deaf. There is too much to explain about life here in the drowning—the financials and insurance and lawyers and evidence and protection orders, caring for traumatized children, forced decisions with no good or morally solid options, mowing the lawn, figuring out passwords of those no longer here, all while experiencing your own PTSD. Sometimes you can’t remember how to do laundry. The dirty clothes, Tide pods, and a washing machine yawn before you, yet how those things came together to produce better-smelling clothes eludes you. That is the drowning. And it is rampant.
Teachers and students are drowning. Rehabs are drowning. Nurses are drowning. Counselors are drowning. Police are drowning. District attorneys and public defenders are drowning. Officers and inmates are drowning. Veterans and those who serve them are drowning.
We cannot reach the drowning by preaching from the shore.
So what would my banners read?
My advice: If you wouldn’t say it a funeral, don’t say it now. Maybe:
Sometimes you just need to get through the next five minutes.
What do you need?
You are loved.
Do what matters today. Forget everything else.
Go back to bed. The laundry can wait.
We need you.
Your voice belongs here.
Give yourself time.
Be gentle with yourself.
That’s what I would like our message to be—to a homeless 20-year-old whose parents are dead, to a child who gets letters from a father in jail or rehab, to a mother who keeps her boy’s bedroom just as it was, to that young girl walking under jaunty banners, alone, her head down, books held tight to her chest, while considering suicide.
Or we can tell them to just laugh it off. . .